Former Irish President Mary Robinson has pulled out of the Emirates Festival of Literature in Dubai in the wake of growing calls for the United Arab Emirates to free human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor.
The former UN human rights commissioner was due to appear at the event on 2nd March but has pulled out after an open letter signed by Stephen Fry, MPs and campaign groups called for the release of Mansoor.
Robinson’s Dublin-based foundation told the Guardian: “In response to the open letter received by the Guardian, Mrs Robinson has advised the organisers that she will not be attending the literature festival.”
Robinson was criticised last month after claiming during a visit to Dubai that Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum was “in the loving care of her family”. Campaigners have alleged the daughter of UAE prime minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum is being held against her will.
The UAE prime minister is a patron of the Dubai literary festival, which is sponsored by the state-owned airline, with Costa and Oxford University Press among its partners. The festival will take place between 1st and 9th March. Tickets are on sale for events with former prima ballerina Darcey Bussell and Stephen Hawking’s first wife Jane Hawking as well as authors Ian Rankin and Douglas Coupland, who have both previously supported freedom of expression group PEN.
The letter, addressed to the UAE prime minister, is signed by authors including James Mayhew, Nicola Davies, Amanda Craig and Laurence Anhalt as well as Anne Booth and Carles Torner from PEN International, calls for the immediate release of Mansoor, who was jailed in May 2018 for 10 years for posts he made on Facebook and Twitter. Mansoor was the 2015 winner of the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders and a member of the advisory committee of Human Rights Watch and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights.
The letter, organised by the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE, reads: “Mr Mansoor’s arrest and the charges against him relate solely to the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression and association. Therefore, we consider him a prisoner of conscience.”
It adds: “As a member of the UN human rights council, the UAE has an obligation to uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights for all its citizens. We call on the UAE government to uphold this obligation with respect to Mr Mansoor by ensuring his immediate and unconditional release.”
Last year historian Sir Anthony Beevor boycotted the Emirates Festival of Literature in Dubai in protest at the treatment of academic Matthew Hedges, and urged other British authors to consider doing the same.
Asked to respond to Robinson's decision and the open letter, the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature Ahlam Bolooki told The Bookseller in a statement: “The Emirates Literature Foundation is a not-for-profit Non-Governmental Organisation established to nurture and spread a love of literature in the UAE and across the region through a programme of cultural initiatives, including the annual literature festival.
“The Festival first came into being through the tireless efforts of passionate individuals who wanted to make a difference and improve the lives of people living in the region today, as well as future generations.
“From the very first edition, visits of authors to schools and colleges was a cornerstone of the Festival’s mission; the rationale being to reach as many young people as possible, particularly those who have yet to fall in love with books and reading.Inspirational authors and illustrators, talking about their works and why reading matters, have made a huge and long-lasting difference to so many young lives.
“In 2018, more than 28,000 students, across nationalities and curricula, government and private schools, had the opportunity to engage with this tireless and generous group of writers and illustrators, who travelled across the Emirates to make it happen. Teachers and librarians have reported long-lasting effects of author visits to schools and colleges, not just on the best readers and the keenest students, but on those who might have found it harder to engage with books.
“We are deeply grateful to all the authors who contribute their time and passion, who share our vision and help us bring the world of literature to life for thousands of people in the Middle East and beyond. While they find new readers for their books, they are instrumental in creating a new reading generation. We also know the entire literature ecosystem thrives when we bring together our local authors with their international peers.
“We encourage authors to visit the Festival, and be part of our education programme, to make up their own minds about the work we do and experience first hand how instrumental they are in changing lives for the better. An appreciation of literature across cultures is something to be encouraged. The immense benefits to young ones of reading for pleasure is well documented, and we will continue to support and nurture a love of literature and a joy of reading in the UAE and the region.
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